Indosole is Turning Old Waste Tires into Shoes

Sarah Moore Impact Mill Contributor

There aren’t many people in the world that can say that by age 38 they’d started a successful business and cut down on global waste. But Kyle Parsons, founder of Indosole, can. The shoe company, which transforms old tires into shoe soles and stitches them to natural fiber uppers, has recently exited its infancy and is growing at an impressive rate.

“I started Indosole with suitcases full of sandals, going from Bali to California,” Parsons recalls of Indosole’s humble 2004 beginnings. “It took us a while to develop our product, but we’re now getting to the point of being excited about it,” he says, adding that they’re finally ready to start selling on a broad scale as well.

Now a Certified B Corporation, Indosole is joining the sustainable clothing revolution, one set of kicks at a time.

The Problem

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Old tires are a huge solid waste problem. They can be recycled, but they usually aren’t | image: Indosole

Parsons noticed a waste problem while on his first trip to Bali in 2004: there were tires everywhere. Tires don’t decompose (like, ever). They also collect water, where they become breeding grounds for mosquitos that transmit dengue fever and sometimes-fatal malaria. Tires are often burned as cheap fuel alternatives, which adds to atmospheric pollution and harms human health. And it’s not just people doing the burning: Piles of tires can even be turned into toxic infernos by lightning strikes.

“It’s one of the largest environmental issues we face today,” Parsons says.

While tires can be recycled, they usually aren’t. Even in developed and relatively eco-conscious countries like the U.S., tire recycling is still in a “growth stage” and far from standard. Imagine how much worse the situation is in developing areas, where for the most part such practices aren’t even on the radar.

But that doesn’t mean tires can’t be recycled in developing countries. It just takes a creative and determined mind to figure out how to make it happen.

The Idea

The love affair with Bali, not to mention with creative shoes, started during that same first trip to Indonesia.

During a trip to Bali, the idea that is now Indosole was born | image: Indosole

“I was really captivated by how awesome Bali is, the land and the people and their talent as artists to manufacture product.” This fascination took material form one day when he was out shopping and his sandal broke. “I was left standing barefoot on the sidewalk. I needed a new pair, and wanted something with a natural look to it, a woven material. I was searching through boutiques, and finally found a pair that had a natural, organic weave on top – and the sole was made of a tire.”

But it wasn’t until he looked out the window and saw motorcycles whizzing by that he made the connection: he too could take old tires and turn them into functional items, convincing consumers to pay to remove a sizable chunk of the tire problem from the waste stream. After all, the indestructibility of tires, which is such a liability in the environment, is a great asset when it comes to durable footwear.

Parsons returned to California and began working on the idea that would become Indosole.

The Test Phase

“Because we offer a really unique product and unique storyline that hadn’t been done before, it took us a while to develop our product,” Parsons explains. “I didn’t know anything about product development, so I had to learn by trial and error.” He had to learn where to source old tires (they pay per-tire at garages, and buy from tire brokers), how to treat them (they remove the sidewall and cut it into the shape of a sole), and how to make them into footwear (they manufacture uppers from natural fibers).

This wasn’t easy, Parsons notes. In order to produce the shoes, he had to find a factory to do the work, which started simply by asking people on the street. Eventually Parsons found a factory owned by British expatriate Adrian Ellis and staffed by local Balinese craftspeople that could handle the job.

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Can you guess that the soles of these shoes are made from waste tires? | image: Indosole

Along the way, he earned support from expats living in Bali, NGOs, and nonprofits, all of whom were interested in his idea. Still, for several years, the company was really just a glorified hobby with aspirations of being a business. But in 2009, with enough interest and enough knowhow, they formally launched.

Indosole now offers a range of products, from burlap purses to batik pants and trucker hats. Of course, the stars of the show are still the tire-soled shoes: sandals, flats, loafers, and tennies for men and women. Some come in natural shades like black, tan, and olive, while others sport wild, tie-dye hues or bright Southwestern prints.

Indosole’s sourcing process has also matured. To date they have rescued more than 64,000 tires from the trash heap, and have streamlined their operations to use more of the tire, further reducing waste.

“We have started using larger tires like truck tires and can now make 6 pair of sandals or shoes from each tire,” Parsons says.

The Message

In everything they do today, Indosole strives to carry the message of waste reduction and environmentalism. For instance, Parsons says, “We use plastic that comes from the beach, like candy wrappers, coffee bags, and chip bags as the backing for our hang tags.”

Their next mission? Seeking partners for a project they’re calling Rubber to Revenue, which is exploring how waste rubber from ground-up tires can be used to create a wide variety of products, including floor mats, car mats, yoga mats, roof shingles, trash cans, or buckets.

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Indosole wants to make many more products from old waste tires | image: Indosole

“And we feel like we haven’t even scratched the surface,” Parsons adds. “You can also take the rubber and reform it into a new tire. It can’t become a car tire again, but it can become a wheel-barrow tire or other tires that aren’t used for life-dependent applications.”

Beyond that, though, Indosole’s founder and its overall message urges everyone to become more aware about ecological issues.

“There’s a big lack of education on recycling, waste management, and minimizing waste in the first place,” Parsons explains. “For centuries, the Indonesian people used banana leaves as packaging, and they would just throw it on the ground, which was fine because it was natural. When the switch to plastic happened, they still just threw it on the ground, and there was no education in place during that transition to make sure that didn’t happen. It’s our responsibility along with others to provide that education, especially to children, so they grow up with a different set of values.”

The Lifestyle

Parsons strives to live his life around the same principles, based in part on his early work experiences.

“When I was 20, I got a job at a recycling plant; I never looked at a plastic bottle the same way after that experience,” he recollects. “Along the way, I’ve gone from making sure I use only recyclable items to minimizing my use of plastic and other waste materials.” Parsons noted that if everyone just carried around their own reusable water bottle and refilled it, that right there would make a huge impact on the world’s waste problem.

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Indosole products are just the beginning of a larger sustainable lifestyle shift that they wish to inspire | image: Indosole

And starting Indosole has further encouraged him to change his lifestyle, using more vegan products, buying organic cottons, and looking for sustainable materials in all his purchases. He hopes to use Indosole to create awareness about the future of conscious consumerism, as well as a way for anyone who wants a durable, stylish set of shoes to take a little bit of waste out of the world.

“It starts with everyday goods and trickles down to clothing choices,” he says. “It’s about connecting with and educating the consumer, and telling them why they should participate.”

With this reporter, at least, he has succeeded: my next pair of sandals is coming from Indosole. And hopefully, all the pairs after that.

Sarah Moore is an Impact Mill contributor and freelance writer who focuses on sustainability, local food, and the weirder side of science. In her spare time she enjoys writing fiction, running, and cooking. Sarah lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband, two children, two dogs, and an unshakable colony of June bugs.